In the collective rush to mock everything Clippers, the NBA world is turning former Clips’ GM (and now Portland GM) Neil Olshey into R.C. Buford and Vinny Del Negro into a dunce whose best coaching skill is screaming at opposing shooters.
Neither caricature is quite true, but even so, if an impartial NBA observer had to chose one of those two for a key position within their franchise, a huge majority at this point would choose Olshey. The Clippers, somehow, have ended up with Del Negro, having exercised their (cheap) option on him for next season, and lost Olshey to the Blazers. That news broke on Monday, about 72 hours after the Clippers released an announcement about a tentative agreement to grant Olshey a long-term contract. It was an open secret that Olshey, once an aspiring actor, had been working under perhaps the very worst GM contract in the league, and this week it came out that Olshey was earning about $250,000 per year on a month-to-month deal. The Clippers were reportedly prepared to match Portland’s offer (the terms of which are yet unknown), but Olshey, for whatever reason, decided that he’d prefer to work for an oligarch with a record of discarding GMs hastily rather than return to Donald Sterling’s empire.
And so the guy who helped orchestrate the Chris Paul trade and did a lot to turn around the image of the Clippers among agents and other powerful sorts is now gone.
A set of holdovers will take over GM duties while the Clippers search for a replacement at a crucial time for the franchise. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul will be free agents after this season, and while the chances of losing Griffin are very slim, Paul will be unrestricted, and the Clippers are not flush with cap space with which they could upgrade the supporting cast for next season. Assuming Mo Williams exercises his $8.5 million player option, the Clips have about $58.5 million in guaranteed money committed to seven players, meaning they’ll be above the cap once you factor in charges for empty roster spots and other minor things. That will leave them with the full mid-level exception, which allows the Clippers to offer a four-year deal starting at about $5 million per season — or a combination of deals that add up to that amount. Beyond that, the Clippers get the smaller exceptions and a couple of tiny trade exceptions linked to the Paul deal that will likely expire without being used.
If Williams opts out, the Clippers will have about $7 million in cap space, which isn’t all that different, materially, from their current barely over situation. Either way, the Clippers have very little room to upgrade the roster without a trade, which means two things:
• They need to use that room well, a task with which a skilled GM and negotiator usually helps
• They need a coach that can bring the players already on the roster to a new level of skill and cohesion
The Clippers are starting this offseason in almost the exact spot where they started the last one, post-Paul blockbuster — in need of depth and shooting on the wing, and anyone able to play the front-court positions credibly behind the Griffin/DeAndre Jordan combination. The seldom-used Paul/Bledsoe combination was deadly, but it brings size issues that will be problematic against some opponents and spacing problems (via Bledsoe’s poor outside shooting) that will, at times, really hurt a team already starting the range-less Jordan and the inconsistent Butler. If he stays, Williams will help with the shooting and carry an otherwise punchless second-unit, but the Clippers need at least one player, and probably two, to fill the Randy Foye/Chauncey Billups/Nick Young void. One of those players has to be able to play small forward on both ends of the floor.
Olshey did the best he could, nabbing Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans to fortify the front line last year, and without a first-round pick in this draft, the Clippers will have to get creative again.
But getting creative in the NBA with limited resources is a hit-or-miss proposition for almost every front office. Teams cannot bank on nailing the mid-level exception or finding Gary Neal or Danny Green or Jeremy Lin on the cheap. They have better control over the internal development of young players, and the Clippers, to reach the next level — and perhaps to convince Paul to stay — are going to have to bring the Griffin/Jordan combination further along.
That’s especially true on defense, where Del Negro’s teams in Chicago and now Los Angeles have never been better than league-average. The Clippers paid Jordan better than $10 million per year to play defense (and be Griffin’s friend), but he and Griffin were unsteady enough as a duo on that end that Jordan’s playing time mostly dwindled as the stakes rose. The two had their moments — highlight shot blocks and occasionally stout post defense from Jordan and zippier rotations from Griffin by the end of the year. But the ratio just wasn’t right between those moments and the shakier stuff — the botched rotations, miscommunication, bad angles against the pick and roll and surprisingly unsteady post defense.
The Clippers can make all the needed tweaks on the margins, but the most important growth must come from Griffin and (especially) Jordan. Is Del Negro the man to do that? Tom Thibodeau and Dwane Casey would have been up to the job, but the Clippers passed on both, and they passed this summer on even asking what Stan Van Gundy, Golden State assistant Mike Malone or another half-dozen candidates might have done for their defense.
The offense will be fine, though it needs more shooting to open things up against playoff defenses ready to overload off of weaker shooters. Griffin will continue to improve his jumper, and he and Paul will develop better pick-and-roll chemistry because they are too great not to do so. This was a top-five offense before struggling a bit, amid major health issues, during the playoffs. It could use a dose of creativity that Del Negro, with his predictable sets, clearly won’t provide, but let’s not go overboard there. Paul and Griffin don’t need wizardry to score points — the Thunder don’t, either — and Del Negro did incorporate various screen-the-screener sets, back-picks, elbow plays (especially for Williams) and other little things as the season went on.
The status quo wasn’t enough to push the Clippers into Thunder/Spurs/Heat/Bulls territory, and that’s where Paul and Griffin want to go.
Griffin will be a restricted free agent next summer if the Clippers fail to sign him to an extension before then, and star-level restricted free agents just don’t change teams.
Paul is another matter. The Clippers will have the advantage of being able to offer Paul a five-year deal with 7.5 percent annual raises, as opposed to the four-year max deal with 4.5 percent annual raises another team could offer under the terms of the new CBA. It’s unclear if any real contenders will have the space a year from now to make Paul that kind of offer — the Lakers, Bulls, Heat, Thunder and Grizzlies almost certainly won’t as of now, though other possibilities loom — but the Clips’ home-court edge only amounts to $6 million or so over the next half-decade.
Will that be enough to sway Paul? If not, can the folks that remain on hand do the job? Only time will tell.